This is the second in a series of pieces from Dr. Alan Levenson adapted from his book "Joseph: Portraits Through the Ages." Read the first online or in the Friday, Nov. 19 faith section.

Dreams in the Bible come in two basic forms; the first is a direct message from God or God’s angels.

Genesis has many of these, including God’s promise to Abraham that he will have an heir (Gen. 15) and God’s promise to Jacob that his descendants will never be abandoned (Gen. 28).

Jacob also receives divine reassurance that his family may go down to Egypt, but will be brought back to Promised Land (Gen. 46). Joseph never receives this type of direct dream (fancy term: theophany), but proves himself the master of the symbolic dream, which requires human interpretation (Compare Daniel, who literally reads the writing on the wall.)

Joseph’s story includes three sets of symbolic dreams: In his own house with his brothers, in an Egyptian jail with two royal servants and at a decisive meeting with the Pharaoh. In each case, these dreams are doubled, signifying their seriousness and reliability.

Joseph’s first dream set is his own, of bowing grain sheafs and then bowing planets and stars, visions both agricultural and cosmic. These dreams antagonize his brothers, with good reason. This is no benign “Any dream will do” out of a “Technicolor Dream Coat” musical. Rather, Joseph’s dreams portend preeminence over his brothers and even his father. Of course, this is precisely what happens, although it takes 20-plus years for this to come true (Gen. 37- 45).

The next set of dreams takes place in the Pharaoh’s jail, after Joseph is falsely accused by Mrs. Potiphar and imprisoned. His cellmates, the steward and the baker — unlike Joseph’s brothers — do not understand their dreams.

Joseph explains to the steward that he will be restored to Pharaoh’s favor. Encouraged by this favorable outcome, the baker presses Joseph to explain his dream too, but receives a completely different answer — his head will not be raised in favor, but raised off his head. On Pharaoh’s birthday, the diametrically-opposed fates of the steward and baker come to pass.

Some rabbis considered Joseph’s successful dream interpretation “minor prophecy,” but on closer inspection, the wine steward’s dream shows him to be hard-working, solicitous, while the baker’s dream reveals a slacker — he allows birds to feed off his bread-basket unmolested. In this perspective, the dream offers the careful listener clues to understanding (The Babylonian Talmud’s discussion of dreams is readily available in English on the website Sefaria, Berachot, 54-55).

Pharaoh’s dream proves to be a pivotal moment for Joseph. One night, Pharaoh dreams himself standing by the Nile River, Egypt’s lifeline, watching scraggly sheaves of grains devouring healthy sheaves of grains. The next night’s dream has skinny cows devouring well-fed, sleek ones. This can’t be a good omen.

Pharaoh calls “all his magicians and wisemen” who respond, “Pharaoh has dreamed a dream and none can interpret it.” Maybe. Maybe not. Who, after all, wants to tell the King (in Egypt, also a God) that a famine is coming and Pharaoh is powerless stop it? Apparently, nobody on the royal payroll.

But Joseph puts on his best clothes, shaves and steps into the breach. He responds with a precise analysis of the single two-part dream and then continues with a plan about what to do — save up the grain in storehouses while there’s still five years of plenty to come, and thus be prepared for the seven years of famine sure to follow. Joseph is honest about the scope of the challenge and ready to work decisively to address it.

In the world of the ancient near east, dreams were assumed to come from the outside, whether from the gods or from demons. In the twentieth century, psychoanalysis reoriented our understanding of dreams as something generated from within, the subconscious expression of unfulfilled desires.

Joseph’s greatness as a dream interpreter in the Bible contains both ancient and modern perspectives — he successfully interprets other people’s dreams and his own dreams get fulfilled too, but by listening well and not by looking for shortcuts.


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